The alleged comments made by U.S. President Donald Trump about Haiti, El Salvador and African nations have spurred visceral reactions from many. The general dialogue has focused on the degree of the reported gaffe ― whether it was an outright racist slur or, as one media outlet put it, a “diplomatic blunder.”
I won’t begin to surmise what he was thinking by such statements, if he did indeed say them. It’s worth noting that Trump denied using the exact words being reported by some in the meeting, confirming only that his comments were “tough.”
But I do wonder about potential fallout of what can at least be described as disparaging remarks. Little has been made about implications beyond calls from some African nations for explanation from U.S. diplomats, and clever tourism campaigns from Namibia and Zambia, to name a couple.
Let me say first, I’m not sounding alarm bells of a global security issue as a direct result of unfortunate, culturally insensitive comments. But such comments ― particularly when combined with other comments that came before and America First rhetoric ― can gradually transform the world’s view of the United States. For our near-peer nations, that’s unproductive. But for the more vulnerable regions of the world, that can be dangerous.
State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson pointed to counterterrorism as the greatest concern for African nations. But that just might be putting it mildly. Antonia Ward, of the think tank Rand Europe, wrote in the National Interest that Africa could provide an “ISIS renaissance.” Civil unrest, government corruption and economic hardship leave the region vulnerable. Also noted by Ward, increased internet access provides a means for Islamic State propaganda and recruitment. We’ve already seen attacks in Somalia, Burkina Faso and Niger, but all of the variables are there for the situation to get far worse.
So what does this have to do with a “diplomatic blunder” from our president? Combating terrorism in Africa requires partnership with the West. That means acknowledgment by the U.S. that the threat exists in the first place ― acknowledgment we’ve seen from the administration ― but also a trust and respect from the targeted countries. Rhetoric that conveys a sense of superiority and even disdain has the very real potential to nudge those vulnerable nations to look elsewhere. As could slighting one of what Ward described as the “most robust African counter-terrorism partnerships” by placing a travel ban on people from Chad.
For decades, the United States was deemed a global protector for many, whether through troop presence or response to insurgency or brutal dictatorships. Some might argue that the reliance extended beyond what most would find reasonable. But that reputation did spur a degree of respect among countries. And that respect translated to influence in how threats might be addressed. Countries facing turmoil often look to the U.S. first. There’s value in having a say.
Like I said, for our peer or near-peer nations, thoughtless commentary might spur frustration and political tensions and perhaps even breakdown in certain cooperation. But when the most vulnerable are alienated or feel a sense of neglect, they just might look elsewhere for a sense of stability. We’ve seen it before, and it didn’t end well.
Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.